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Kenneth Branagh: ‘I have unfinished business with Romeo and Juliet’

Kenneth Branagh. Photo: Blake Gardner Kenneth Branagh. Photo: Blake Gardner

Kenneth Branagh turns 55 next month, but he still exudes the same youthful exuberance and ready enthusiasm for the theatre that he had when he began his career, fresh out of RADA, by starring in the original West End transfer of Another Country 35 years ago.

In the years since, of course, he has become an international film and television star and film director, with Oscar nominations for both directing and starring in Henry V and adapting Hamlet, as well as for his role in My Week With Marilyn, in which he played Laurence Olivier, whose own career as a Shakespearean and mainstream film actor he has come closest to emulating.

branagh-cvNow, he’s following in Olivier’s footsteps again to return to the theatre with a company named after himself: just as Olivier once headed up Laurence Olivier Productions in the 1950s to produce plays and films, so Branagh is now heading up a year-long West End season of plays at the Garrick, presented under the umbrella of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. He is directing three and stars in four of the shows himself.

One of them is a role that Olivier himself made famous: the title role in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, so he is once again in Olivier’s direct shadow.

“For anyone of my generation, he’s been a big part of everyone’s career. He almost single-handedly carved out the pre-eminent position as actor with positions of prominence in theatre and stage and film, and the space he occupied was massive in the lives of every generation that came after him.”

But he notes ruefully: “I think the cultural memory doesn’t apply in the same way anymore – simply because time passes so quickly now, it seems. I was aware of this when I played him in My Week With Marilyn – my assumption that everyone knew exactly who he was was wrong.”

So fame is almost invariably always fleeting, even for Olivier, and for Branagh it has meant a return to the work rather than the demands of celebrity. This season marks a concerted and concentrated return to the theatre for the actor, though he’s dipped his toes back into it regularly over the last decade with short runs in plays in Sheffield, Belfast and Manchester and for the Donmar Warehouse at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in between directing such film blockbusters as Thor and Cinderella, and starring in the BBC series Wallander. He was also last month appointed the new president of RADA, following the late Richard Attenborough, so the timing couldn’t be better for him to re-establish his theatrical roots that saw him, more than a quarter of a century ago now, found the Renaissance Theatre Company, a touring, West End and later film- producing home for his own work.

Fabian Cartwright and Kenneth Branagh in Public Enemy at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Zuleika Henry
Fabian Cartwright and Kenneth Branagh in Public Enemy at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Zuleika Henry

I interviewed him at the time at Lyric Hammersmith, 28 years ago now, when he premiered his own debut play Public Enemy there, after starring in and directing a production of Romeo and Juliet at the same theatre the previous year. He learnt a lot of hard lessons in those two early experiences: “It was a form of insanity to both act in and direct Romeo and Juliet,” he notes, and this time around, when he is starring in and directing The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade (the opening productions of the season), he has a co-director on hand: “Having the colossus that is Rob Ashford by my side here makes life very, very different.”

I wish someone had told me that the stupidest thing you can do is put all your money into your own play, aged 27

This time he is only directing Romeo and Juliet, not appearing in it, so that’s the one play he’s directing solo: “The play has real challenges, and of course I by no means felt I had cracked it 30 years ago, when it was the first Shakespeare I directed. I wanted to go back to that play again, and when you work with people you realise have the appetite and the ability to play the parts, like Lily James and Richard Madden, and those talents are ready to go to work with a play that you feel contains unfinished business, that becomes very enticing.”

James and Madden, of course, starred in his most recent film Cinderella, and this production has emerged directly out of that. “We all spent a couple of years on Cinderella, from the casting to filming and then playing it through the distribution and press tour to promote the film. So you get to know each other, and to have those longer conversations about what you’d like to do together.”

Romeo and Juliet will also feature Derek Jacobi, “whose look of surprise when I asked him to play Mercutio was one of the great moments of my professional life”, Branagh quips.

Branagh with Richard Easton in Derek Jacobi's Hamlet. Photo: Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Branagh with Richard Easton in Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet. Photo: Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Jacobi also got his theatre directorial break when Branagh invited him to direct him in the title role of Renaissance’s Hamlet, as did Judi Dench and the late Geraldine McEwan when they directed Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It respectively, in productions that were launched at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and then toured before culminating in a rep season at the West End’s Phoenix Theatre.

Dench is also back on hand in this new season, starring as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale opposite Branagh as Leontes. “We’ve all directed each other, so there’s a level of trust that is particular. The work we’re doing in this season has all been part of ongoing conversations we’ve been having for a long time, like when I was doing a night-time shoot somewhere in Eastern Europe with Derek, and this work is now trying to capture some of that.”

branagh-q-and-aSome of it goes all the way back to that early bruising experience of putting on his own play Public Enemy. When I tell him that I saw it, he replies: “You are one of the 10 people who saw it in the end! Ignorance is bliss, but I wish someone had told me that the stupidest thing you can do is write your own play then put all the money you have in your life at the age of 27 into it!” Did it lose money? “Oh man, I know exactly how much I lost: it was a £50,000 budget, and £25,000 of that was mine – it was all the money I had ever earned, and we lost it all. It was a quick way to learn all about doing new plays.”

But that play also introduced him to a young woman called Marilyn Eardley – “in the whirligig of time, she was working in the office at Hammersmith then and later joined us in Renaissance. She’s now working with Fiery Angel, co-presenting this season.”

So the season is bringing together lots of people both behind-the-scenes and onstage, including composer and friend Patrick Doyle, whom Branagh has worked with for more than 30 years now, and designer Christopher Oram, whom he has worked with regularly for the last decade.

Then there are the actors, veteran as well as young, that are part of the company, and, you sense, one of his greatest priorities and loves.

Judi Dench in rehearsal for The Winter's Tale. Photo: Johan Persson
Judi Dench in rehearsal for The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Johan Persson

“I’m so lucky to be working again in this company with Judi Dench, 30 years in, and Jimmy Yuill and John Shrapnel across many years. And although I didn’t work directly with him before, I remember being on the road at the same time as Michael Pennington, he with English Shakespeare Company and us with Renaissance, and meeting at various curry houses late at night in this great land of ours. I remember once we all met and had a two-company curry in Birmingham, where we were opening three plays at Birmingham Rep – and they were opening seven history plays in a 10-day period at the Hippodrome. Sometimes our ambitions are crazy.”

Like Pennington, Branagh’s model has always been that of the long-venerated and cherished one of actor-manager: “Historically this is a version of what has always gone on, from Shakespeare being a shareholder in his own theatre to what Michael and I have done, a variant on the means by which a producer or director might gather a group of collaborators to produce some work. But this has a different and interesting inflection, which is distinct inside the landscape of independent companies.”

It’s a journey he’s been on before with Renaissance: “The distinct thing is the actor-manager part of it and the different forms it can take. Our seven or eight-year cycle with Renaissance ended at a point where I had to make a decision about whether an evolution of the company could happen through being based in one place, but it also came at a point when film work and what it challenged me with was also on offer, and I chose – or it chose me – to focus on film for a bit. But I always had the notion of finding a way to do some work that involved finding a creative home, which might be a building, but without institutionalising what I was after, yet giving a different kind of context for what I was up to. It was something I always danced around, but it took me a while to know how it would land.”

It started, once again, with lots of conversations. “I think you have to do a little bit of short, medium and long-term planning. It’s taken quite a while over a number of years to get to this point where I could gather the people who are key to the creative team and what we are doing. Lots of things fall in and out. An actor is settled for 18 months, then he’s gone because something comes up; a play you had the rights to suddenly you don’t have the rights to; a new play you thought was just ready isn’t ready; and then there are all the other things, like the famine and feast of theatrical availability, that roulette game, and the interdependence of all of those factors.”

branagh-top-tipsHe goes on: “That being the case, there is work that I would have liked to have done in this season that has not made it into this programme. About two or three years ago, I sat down with [producers] Ed Snape and Marilyn Eardley of Fiery Angel and Tamar Thomas, my co-producer and assistant for the last 25 years. We covered the wall of my office at Pinewood with those old-fashioned filing cards with the titles of plays I was interested in doing and people and directors I wanted to work with. All of it born of a passionate desire to work with them; these are the people and plays I’m interested in. I didn’t know if we’d get to be anywhere near a fraction of this, but it represented my taste.”

He remembers that Eardley stopped and said: “Let me take a picture of this now!” Every time something in the jigsaw changed, they went back to that master. Shakespeare, of course, was a given: it’s been a mainstay of both his stage and film career.

“It sure has, ever since it caught in my adolescence with a good teacher and the evidence of productions that were direct and engaging – it may have been an unlikely place, but do you remember the St George’s Theatre in Tufnell Park?” I reply that I do, even though Branagh jokingly says to me: “You’re just a slip of a boy!”

He recalls a production of Romeo and Juliet there that starred Sarah Badel as Juliet, “and David Collings as a brilliant Mercutio”. (I looked it up; it also featured Peter McEnery as Romeo, Philip Voss as Benvolio and Rosemary Leach as Nurse). “It was packed to the rafters and had the sort of atmosphere you get at the Globe – it made an enormous impact on me. To see something dressed in old clothes in an ancient place, or at least it seemed so to me, but that was about sex and gangs that our school had experience of. The connection between classical world and heartbeat of this thing seemed to be about us.”

branagh-onIt was there and then, he says, that “this difference between Shakespeare as performed, as opposed to Shakespeare as read, was illustrated. I enjoyed hearing it and saying it and I enjoyed the detective hunt of trying to understand it, so for me it became all-embracing”. He quickly became a voracious consumer of all things theatrical: “I devoured everything I could read, watch and listen to. For me, at 15 or 16, the highlight of the week was Radio 4 at 9pm, and hearing John Hurt as Edward II or Derek Jacobi as Richard II. They were mindbogglingly well done. I realised I didn’t need to understand them intellectually, I was just affected by them. And I was fascinated how the man I saw on television as The Naked Civil Servant was now on radio as Edward II. It became a tapestry of inter-related, complex and fascinating worlds.”

Branagh’s own career has born testament to that and exemplified just those sorts of contrasts.

“One of the things I like about what the company is doing now is exactly that. Today we ran Acts IV and V of The Winter’s Tale, then we went straight into Harlequinade. I loved looking at Tom Bateman, who is so wonderful as Florizel, then turning into the stage- manager character in Rattigan’s Harlequinade, which we’re also doing with All on Her Own, a dark monologue being performed by Zoe Wanamaker. These two relatively little-known Rattigans are revelatory to me. They’re the opposite ends of his various styles. Harlequinade is a very funny but poignant play about actors and acting, while All on Her Own is both thrilling and a thriller, and amazing to see in the hands of Zoe Wanamaker. The experience of seeing 25 actors in The Winter’s Tale, then 17 in Harlequinade, and one on her own, keeps you very, very alive in the rehearsal room, and seeing people and atmosphere change from big picture to little picture, big sweeping gesture to small detail – it keeps the company very alert.”

Branagh in Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival 2013. Photo: Johan Persson
Branagh in Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival 2013. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s something he enjoys seeing from both the outside and inside. “It always feels like a natural place for me to be,” he says of working on multiple productions at once, as he of course did early on in his acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “It’s so extraordinary to think of now, though of course you didn’t think about when you were doing it, you just did it, but for a year I’d begin rehearsing at 10 in the morning and then finish after doing a play at 10 at night, for six days a week. It certainly produces a different kind of characteristic to the work, and it’s very beneficial in the classics and to the idea of developing actor skills. I’m interested in how actors develop and to see how people deal with pressure of different kinds of roles, and how they benefit from a doing a more modern play and a classical play in close proximity to each other.”

He goes on to say: “I’ve always enjoyed that connection – and classical work always involves a fusion between the contemporary in production values and the feel, meaning and import of a play, and an awareness of a tradition that it has come from.” The theatre historian in him, he says, “likes to read about other actors’ struggles with the part – how did they do the statue scene at the Lyceum, for instance? I like being part of all of that”.

Classical theatre, of course, is never a blank slate, but comes with a lot of inevitable baggage of past productions: “I always feel inspired, not intimidated, by what has gone before, and feel proud to be part of a continuing dialogue with the plays. If people love a piece of music and they have a favourite Beethoven symphony, it would be a tragedy if they heard it only once or there was only one way to hear it. The plays of Shakespeare can be celebrated because performers are continuing to keep them alive.”

A Winter’s Tale is a play that actually fell out of the repertoire, and hasn’t been seen in the West End for a long, long time. “In Michael Grandage’s production of Photograph 51 they mention Gielgud doing it at the Phoenix Theatre in the 1950s – which is where we played our Renaissance season.” Branagh once again is ever alert to historical connections, and he has his own with the play: “I was drawn to it when I saw it as quite a young man, maybe I was 19, when I had a girlfriend in a production at the National Youth Theatre so I saw it over many, many performances, and was absolutely drawn to it. For those who think the play is about age and pain and cost of maturity, they may be surprised to find that it has a Romeo and Juliet-ian thrust to the fourth act.

It seems to be an evolving time in the life of the West End

“It’s a problematic play, but it’s a wonderful problem, and a masterwork. There’s no question about that – and if I had to shut up shop tomorrow, it’s been such a privilege to work on already and a big experience to be on this creative collaboration. It may be hokey, but it’s the truth that you learn a great deal from people like Judi Dench, Michael Pennington and Johnny Shraps [John Shrapnel]. But also we have half a dozen young actors who are in their first or second jobs, who also come at the work with a kind of freshness and energy that makes them part of a really strong dynamic at both ends of that company experience. It’s very touching, but also enormously informative, to hear Judi Dench talk to brilliant Jessie Buckley about Perdita; or Miranda Raison who is playing Hermione, both of which parts Judi has played; and also for them to see the honesty of Judi’s approach. It’s really a privilege to see the interplay between them – it’s a proper working collaboration.”

Branagh as Ivanov. Photo: Johan Persson

Branagh was previously part of Michael Grandage’s West End season for the Donmar Warehouse at Wyndham’s Theatre, starring in the title role of Chekhov’s Ivanov, and he speaks admiringly of what Grandage did then and his subsequent season at the helm of his own commercial season. “His ability to give back is very significant – he’s an incredible encourager of young directors and young writers and I find the level of detail he brings to that company set-up really admirable.”

Initiatives like Grandage’s and now Branagh’s are, of course, raising the game of the West End, I suggest. He quickly corrects me: “I don’t think we can say we’ve raised any game yet. Our ambitions are high but the world has yet to see what we’ve done, so it may feel differently when it does. But the artistic ambition is strong inside these challenging but bracing and clear commercial models. There are financial limits. We’re not taking any subsidy, which is also a good thing – I’m happy that we can occupy this space, and money that might be valuably used elsewhere can go elsewhere.”

So, finally the test will be in performance – and its performances. “I’ve always been interested, I hope not in a self-indulgent way, in performance. In a way, that is partly why writers like Shakespeare and Rattigan in this case also use theatre and performance so regularly as a metaphor for examining what is real in people’s lives, and at one and the same time looking at what enhances and improves performance in the classical world. I have a particular taste about how Shakespeare is done – I like it to be naturalistic and to be invisibly technically perfect. Those are very hard things to do and you need circumstances under which you can do that. Doing this little group of plays in rep to begin with is an important part of that.”

branagh-further-readingHe is pleased to be back in London, and in the West End, after working mostly in regional theatre in the last decade. “It seems to be an evolving time in the life of the West End, and you know better than anybody about how it is all changing. But it feels like a good time to keep up with the changing demands of the West End, and London is such a vital place to be. I’ve enjoyed most of my theatrical work in the last decade in different parts of the country, but I’m ready to be here in London now.”

Kenneth Branagh’s Plays at the Garrick season runs until November 12, 2016 (www.branaghtheatre.com); The Winter’s Tale will be broadcast live to cinemas across the UK at 7pm on 26 November (www.branaghtheatrelive.com)

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